Listen to Andrew Gallimore interviewed in this podcast talking about Mike Mctigue
Links to recent articles about Mike Mctigue
And an oldie - Milwaukee Journal 1927 article on the McTigue- Berlenback fight
The article below was published in the Clare People newspaper in March 2008 and was written by Christine Breen. Christine is married to the author Niall Williams and they live in Ireland. Check out their website www.niallwilliams.com
The Champion Son of Kippeen of Kilnamona: Mike McTigue -by Christine Breen
Under the Christmas tree, beside the electric-train set and the childrens guitar, there was usually a pair of boxing gloves. They would be for one or another of my four brothers. And by the time the youngest of them had grown tall, there'd be eight punching gloves scattered around our house and a few fights always brewing in the corners. At the time, I didn't put two and two together, but years later when Santa brought my own son a pair of boxing gloves and a punching bag, it finally struck me. It was in the genes--my great uncle on my fathers side was Mike McTigue, the world light heavyweight boxing champion from Kilnamona, County Clare.
Uncle Mike was my fathers favourite uncle and because of his love and great admiration for him we too grew up with boxing lore. It was mostly in the names that we heard and in the mystique of that photograph of Mike that hung in my fathers house in New York that the magic lingered and grew. Names like The Battling Siki, the Frenchman--Gorgeous Georges Carpentier, Stribling and the Ku Klux Clan connection, and Berlenbach and Delaney, all conjured up the glamour and excitement of boxing in the Jazz era. And in that photograph Mike is posed looking more like movie star than a boxer, groomed and gentle-looking with a light eyes and a smile, and fixed in his classic pose, the three point stance.
He was born in Kilnamona in 1892. He had twelve brothers and sisters and his nieces and nephews are scattered to the four corners of the globe. He became a boxer by accident. As the story goes he worked on the docks hauling sides of beef after arriving in New York at the age of 21.
Finding himself one day between a rock and a hard place he had to choose to defend his boss who had been knocked flat by a trucker or walk away and risk getting fired. He chose to fight and although bloodied and bashed, he won. His boss watching from his knocked-down position on the ground told him he was too good for the docks and should be in the ring.
His first fight on record was in 1914 in the Bronx against the oddly-named Happy Davis. Like many stories of boxers of the first half of the 20th Century, Mikes is a mix of extremes, with moments of great triumph and of great despair. Lovers of boxing will know well the story of his extraordinary title fight. It was St. Patricks Day in Dublin at the La Scala Opera Theatre. It was 1923, the country raw with tension and civil war. It doesn't take much imagination to envision what that day might have been like, especially as the Republicans had ordered all theatres and cinemas to close to mourn for the dead of the previous days executions. Add to that the circumstances of the new Irish Free State with bombs going off in Dublin.
And into this bring the Battling Siki, the world champion from Senegal who after beating the Frenchman Georges Carpentier for the title reportedly walked the streets of Paris with a leopard on a leash. The stage is set, the script ready to be written. Synge and Shaw and O'Casey all had plays on at the Abbey Theatre that year. The Dublin of 1923 has all the makings of a scene in a Hollywood movie. And at the centre of this drama is Mike McTigue, who, having left America, had returned to Ireland via England to see what fights he could secure to boost his dwindling finances and his declining career.
As Andrew Gilmore writes in his book, A Bloody Canvas, and tells in the superb new documentary of the same name, it was all about timing. For the first time, Mike McTigue was in the right place at the right time.
It wouldn't always be so for the gentleman boxer from Clare but, for the moment, the night was his. The world was watching to see if the Irish Free State could pull off the staging of a world championship and it had its own son to put forward. The match went twenty rounds, the last time in boxing history that a match went that long. The documentary shows the boxers in the flickering black-and-white, the packed crowd in hats and caps, the civil war paused for the duration of the fight. When Mike wins by a decision we see the crowd going wild and Mike making his way to the ropes to welcome his father, known as The Kippeen, into the ring. In a moment that takes my breath away, my great grandfather-- Kippeen,, lifts his son, the world champion, into the air. If the Great Depression hadn't devoured his finances perhaps the Mike McTigue story would have had a different ending.
Mike could have retired at the top of his game. As it was, after the crash of 1929, his fortune gone, he had to do the only thing he knew how to do, he fought. He was boxing until he was fifty years of age. He would have stayed boxing if the New York Commission hadn't taken his license. His courage and endurance were remarkable, and in dealing with the hardship and misfortune of his later life he was truly heroic. Perhaps that is why my father kept that photograph always and why the boxing gloves kept appearing each Christmas.
To look at the photograph reminded him not only of victory, but of defeat too, and of valour and dignity in the face of it. And because Uncle Mike was a story to tell your grandchildren, to make them proud of the man from Clare, the fighter who would not get knocked out, who would go down in the history books as the first Irishman to win a world title on Irish soil.